Story & photos Melissa Hargraves
‘Even though we only have four per cent of the population here, we have twenty per cent who don’t have a roof over their heads.
‘Housing costs are extraordinarily high. Forty per cent of people renting in the seat of Page are in rental stress, compared to twenty six per cent in NSW.
‘Unemployment is high. Incomes are low here – two thirds of the state average.’
So said Northern Rivers Social Development Council (NRSDC) chief executive Tony Davies in opening the Page electoral candidates forum co-hosted by Echonetdaily in Lismore last night.
The panel of hopefuls faced a full house of engaged voters.
Attending the night was Kevin Hogan from the Nationals, Desley Banks from the Greens, Janelle Saffin from Labor, Stephen Janes from Palmer United Australia and Rod Smith from One Nation. Carol Ordish from the Christian Democratic Party was scheduled to speak but was not in attendance.
Housing and Homelessness
Mr Davies asked the candidates, ‘will your party commit to another four years’ funding for the National Partnership on Homelessness, which is around committing to the federal- and state-sanctioned target of halving homelessness by 2020?’
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘Youth homelessness is a large issue here, and the programs that I often see work best are the ground-up ones that people spontaneously build, and there are a number of those which I support.
‘Committing to halving homelessness by 2020, absolutely, and some of us would hope to do better. To be perfectly honest with you I haven’t had a good look at that partnership, but the intention of it is very good.’
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘If you are asking me if the government should just come in and buy more houses then I don’t think it is as simple as that. My answer would be it’s a long-term structural issue. I think we need to really deflate this housing bubble, we need to make accommodation more affordable, change zonings. This is an integration of efforts through all levels of government.
‘Council could be making sure that schools are near nursing homes and affordable housing, so children can brighten the day of the elderly and vice versa; the children can also be learning about life.’
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘We have a plan to build low-cost housing that will stimulate the economy. We need to provide more housing for people on low incomes, and for youth. Let’s not forget university students who are struggling to pay their rent. This is a high priority for us.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘Thirty per cent unemployment in some of the towns in this electorate is horrific. My feeling is that the sector that is best placed to offer employment opportunities the quickest is the small-business sector. We could change penalty rates for example. If we could deal with the employment issue then that will help deal with housing affordability.’
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘Firstly I agree with the partnership. I have a commitment to get it signed off for another four years. Tackling homelessness is multipronged – all tiers of government. It does require a public investment… a lot is happening now. I would like to see it better targeted to the regions. I am not attacking anyone here, but it goes through the state and they determine where a lot of the funding goes to. I would like to see more debate about getting more here, which I have been involved in.
‘I am always betwixt and between about the rents; I get told if we tackle the market we can bring it down. I remember when we had the Rental Control Board and the rents didn’t escalate as high so we need to have more discussion about that.
‘The councils are working on this… it is shameful that we have homeless people.’
Coal Seam Gas (CSG)
This question was only thrown at Mr Hogan.
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘I am happy to cross the floor on that one, not just because of water and air issues, but also the industrialisation of our landscape.’
National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘We are very supportive of the national NDIS.’
Mr Davies refined questioning to a commitment of the fastest possible rollout timeframe of the NDIS and its prioritisation to this area, owing to the high percentages in this region.
‘Regardless of who wins government there is multi-partisan promise that NDIS will roll out in this region by 2016 at the latest, which is great news,’ said Mr Davies.
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘Yes.’
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘Yes, and we would like to see our over-65s included in that funding as well.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘We are the same as the Greens on that.’
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘One Nation will commit to the NDIS. The only qualifying thing that we have is we want to monitor the rollout as we want the money to go to the people who need it, not to more layers of bureaucracies, cars, expensive office space etc.’
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘The NDIS is a great Labor initiative which the community demanded.’
Paid Parental Leave
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘Small business told us at the time, please don’t put it on us to pay for it, particularly through our region. The scheme in operation now is affordable and is fair. The one that the coalition has come out with is not affordable and is not well thought through.
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘I think our proposed paid parental leave scheme is a good one because 80 per cent of the people who will receive that scheme will be on $65,000 or less a year. That will be paid by the taxpayer and the leading 3,000 corporations in Australia.
‘If you are a public servant, you already have a paid parental scheme now. But if you work for a small business they can’t afford to pay you that.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘We think that the Liberal/National policy is one of the most discriminatory policies that has been released in recent times; it is only if you are working. What about the stay-at-home mums? They get nothing yet their rearing a child is just as valid an occupation.
‘So we think that whether you are a $150,000 per year lawyer from Double Bay or a young mother from Ballina, you should get $25,000 over a six-month period. It helps all families and the economy.’
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘We support Labor’s paid parental scheme and think the coalition one is unfair.’
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘One Nation has concerns about the top-end paid parental scheme.’
The Business Council of Australia (BCA) came out early this year endorsing an increase of $50 per week to Newstart.
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘I support that increase and I have campaigned in Canberra and in my party for this. I haven’t got there yet but I will continue to do that. It should have happened sooner. You cannot live on Newstart.
‘This is the first time in Australia that the BCA and the Australian Council of Social Services are saying that it has to increase. It has to happen.’
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘We would support the increase and an additional $40 per week for single parents on Newstart.’
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘One Nation would support the increase – I mean how could you see a dentist or other services on Newstart? We expect people to live on a 1980s wage.’
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘Yes I will commit to trying to increase Newstart; it is impossible to live on.’
Mr Davies suggested to Mr Hogan that he could be crossing the floor a lot, to which he replied, ‘at this stage the Labor party wouldn’t be there with me on this either.’
Single Parent Pension
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘There was bipartisan support that when your child reached eight years you progressively go off it onto Newstart. I am not against it per se but it has particularities in our region such as childcare and transport that need to be factored in. You can’t put them straight onto Newstart and drop it automatically when they have commitments. It is a package that I have been campaigning for; where there is one payment like an omnibus, there is a pile of us across the board on that one.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘I am acutely aware of the issue with single parenting income, with experience within my own family.’
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘We would support the premise of Gonski. We would like to see the private schools take on more of a share of the workload with underprivileged children. If they are getting state funding, why can’t they be part of the system?’
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘We support Gonski. The criticism that we have only committed up to the first four years and not the last two is because that is how far the forward estimates go.’
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘If we taxed our miners more there would be more money for Gonski. Public teachers are doing it tough; some spend their own money on the school. We would like to see class sizes reduced to give our kids the best shot at an education.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘We support the Gonski review. We won’t do it by taking money from tertiary institutions!’
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘We are committed to the six years. The Nationals’ issue of not committing for six years because of forward estimates is nonsense. The Coalition paid parental scheme will be ongoing, which has gone beyond forward estimates, so they could give that commitment now.’
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘We support more investment into public transport. It is not easy to do; I see buses running around that are not full so we need to look more closely at what our needs are.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘We don’t have a policy other than say we would look at it.’
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘What has started with the NRSDC is to have a regionally integrated transport plan that is still limping along, it is alive and that will provide us with options, like community buses to villages for example.
‘That plan is with the state government now.’
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘I was a guard on the railways here when I first left school. I think we have a precious piece of infrastructure, which is the railway. It would be a wonderful safe way for our young people to go to the coast and back safely.
‘I see the money they spend on highways and then say they are into renewable fuels.’
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘The solution to this is difficult, which is why there hasn’t been one. It is primarily a state issue. I won’t lie and say I have a solution now because I don’t.’
This was a question thrown at Mr Hogan by a 15-year-old concerned about his rights to protect his pay and conditions up against transnational billion-dollar corporations.
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘We are not advocating individual workplace agreements any more – it is enterprise bargaining like it is now. Tony Abbott said there will be no major changes to industrial relations, and any that he will make will be taken to an election.’
The answer did not satisfy the questioner, pressing Mr Hogan to ‘define what individual flexibility arrangements are that are supported in Mr Abbott’s industrial relations policy.’
Mr Hogan responded, ‘one area that we want to change is that if a school child wanted to work after school they could work for less than three hours. Some don’t want to work three hours after school and some businesses stopped employing young staff after school as they didn’t need them for three hours. That is the type of inflexibility that hurts a school child getting employment.’
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘I don’t know what Miss Hanson is going to do.’
Senator Len Harris from One Nation stood up from the audience and said that ‘obviously the first preferences go to all the independents; One Nation has two how-to-votes in the Senate and they are equally split between the Liberal and the Labor parties, but they are down after all the independents.’
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘In the Lower House we tend to preference like the Palmer United Party, the Christian Democrats, we tend to lean that way before we go to the Labor/Greens area, so I assume that is what we will do in the Senate, but I can’t answer your question.’
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘I can tell you where the Greens’ preference will go and you may get a surprise. The actual name of the party is The Pirate Party – their policies are in line with ours. We went through all the policies of the parties and have aligned with who was closest to us.’
Mr Davies added, ‘… so we all know that Saturday September 7 is International Speak like a Pirate Day’.
Ms Banks responded, ‘that day is actually National Threatened Species Day – that is an important issue we should address on September 7.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘I am like Kevin, I don’t know. I do know that in some places we are preferencing the Greens, particularly in South Australia where we want to get Sen Hansen–Young over the line.’
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘In NSW it has just been said it is the Greens.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘We are similar to the Greens on refugee policy, we are compassionate towards them. The simple and most humane way to do it is like what happens in 90 per cent of the countries around the world – you can come into Australia without a visa, buy an airfare, fly into the country for $800 or $1,000, rather than pay $20,000 on a people smuggler’s boat.
‘If you are a genuine refugee you will be assessed at the airport under UN charters for example, and we will look after you. We are a compassionate country and we think that will deal with the issue.’
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘It is very often forgotten that both parties have a very similar policy regarding refugees. For many years we have been roughly taking 14,000 to 15,000 humanitarian refugees per year.
‘Why do we limit it at that? It is because we are a compassionate country and we have educational, housing programs and other assistance when they get here. We want to stop the boats as we don’t want that as the mode of transport.
‘When the Howard government left government, there was no-one in detention centres and the number of boats had all but stopped.’
Mr Hogan was called a liar, which he defended.
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘One Nation would assess each individual with compassion on an individual basis and they would abide by Australian immigration law. We would also ask other countries in the area to adopt responsibility for refugees. We believe charity begins at home and while we want to be compassionate, we don’t want to be a soft touch either.’
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘I would like to remind both of the older parties that it is not illegal to seek asylum. Globally, waves of refugees will follow bouts of war. There are wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that Australia is involved in; we have a responsibility to the citizens of those nations to accept their refugees.
‘When they say jump the queues, well there are no queues. We need to get some happening.’
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘I feel like we are stuck on the Tampa, we haven’t moved on. The approach to the Tampa was politically, legally and morally wrong, which I still say today. I don’t want people to get on boats and drown. I would like to see resettlement happen, which is primarily Indonesia. It is such a fraught debate we are in. I have to say that I have heard Clive Palmer talking on it and he is pretty good!’
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘When there was a Bill before parliament I voted yes on it, but it seems like NSW may be able to lead the way on it anyway; they have just discovered some power they have to do it.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘I don’t think it is relevant what my personal position is on it. I think the best way forward is to have a referendum and find out what the people want.’
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘We wouldn’t need a conscience vote as we would all vote for it.’
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘I personally don’t have an issue with it. I have had many discussions with religious organisations and I see their concerns that maybe later on under anti-discrimination laws that they may have to marry people they don’t want to, which I think is a real issue.
‘I think on this issue I would support a referendum.’
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘My personal view is I believe in a traditional marriage between a man and a woman. That is my position and One Nation’s.’
Increasing respect for Indigenous Australians
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘People need to get out there and engage, build our communities strong with inclusion.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘The first thing that Clive Palmer wants to do when he becomes prime minister is deal with the Aboriginal infant mortality rate, which is the highest in the world.’
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘Continue to show respect and compassion, also make sure that services reach people who need them, also constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.’
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘We have been trying to answer this question for nearly 50 years and we are still yet to solve it. Any solution I see comes from the ground up, such as the work of Greg Telford.’
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘I don’t believe a change in a constitution will engender respect between people.’
Dental Health and Fluoridation
Mr Smith (One Nation) – ‘I am not sure of the party’s view on fluoridation but I personally don’t agree with it. I think we need more information. There should be more funding for early preventative dental care.’
Mr Hogan (Nats) – ‘I am not sure where we are at with our specific policy on dental care. Regarding fluoridation, I always err on the side of caution with this stuff – I don’t want it to be a problem further on.’
Ms Banks (Greens) – ‘The Greens have a good record on Denticare: they with the government got through Denticare investment of free dental care for 3.4 million Australian children, which we are proud of. There is still a long way to go with our vision and that is to bring it in under with Medicare.
‘With fluoride, our decisions are made from groups all around Australia and we can’t agree on what the right decision on fluoride is. My personal decision is that I am glad I have tap water and I am fighting hard to have it kept out of Lismore and Ballina water supply.’
Mr Janes (Palmer United Aus) – ‘Our policy will inject $80 billion into health, which will include dental. Personally I am against fluoridation; it is a chemical and how do you administer it properly. My wife drinks three litres of water a day and I drink half a litre. So she gets six times what I am getting; that can’t be right.’
Ms Saffin (Labor) – ‘Often when funding goes to Sydney we don’t necessarily see it here, so I make sure that we get it. There is now about 2.7 million for dental care in our local health district. I agree with Denticare and we need discussions about the funding of that.
‘I personally don’t think we should add anything else to the water; we are protecting it so don’t put fluoride in. Thank goodness I don’t have to make a decision on it.’
Mr Davies added that ‘all eyes turned to Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell’ [who was sitting in the audience].
‘We are not going to ask you any questions on it tonight Jenny. And we won’t go to vaccination as I know my view is different from the rest of Byron Shire’s, and I do support fluoridation but I am not a decision maker.’
Quality of aged and mental health care
Mr Smith (One Nat.)–‘I would like to see increased funding for aged care any kind of acute care. During this campaign I have found out that only a third to a half of people receive palliative care that need it. It is a combination of funding and ignorance of entitlement. ‘
Mr Hogan (Nats.)–‘A lot of the Coalition policies with mental health are targeted at early intervention. During this campaign we have announced a $200 million dollar investment into dementia research.’
Ms Banks (Greens)–‘We have supported the Labor governments legislation to improve quality of aged care and we would like to secure funding to improve better monitoring of services. We need to show more support for people who are keeping their families at home with them, and out of institutions.’
Mr Janes (Palmer Unit. Aus)–‘We do have a policy of aged care but for the life of me I can’t remember it. But the role of government is to look out for the most marginalised in our society while creating a robust economy that can fund that care.’
Ms Saffin (Labor)–‘It is a combination of advocacy and policy. I would like to see in every area an ombudsman.’
Ms Saffin (Labor)–‘The fringe benefits tax, but I hate to say it as it will affect some of the community services area.’
Mr Janes (Palmer Unit. Aus)–‘Our savings are around revenue creating and stimulus by changing the company tax rate and reducing income tax. ‘
Ms Banks (Greens)–‘I’d like to see a lot less government waste of money and the money going to the right people. Some of the prices of the buildings that have been built, I could of built three for that!’
Mr Hogan (Nats.)–‘We want to look at government waste as well. We want to look after the private sector because they fund everything the public purse provides. We are one of the most expensive countries in the world to do business, so want to remove some of that red tape.’
Mr Smith (One Nat.)–‘Handouts to large companies needs to be looked at and cut. Mobile phone companies are getting a cool hundred million to perform a service which they took on to do. They claim to cover ninety three percent of Australia’s land mass then they want money for black spots. Let’s take that money and let people get their teeth fixed!’
See the Echo’s full election coverage on our page Election 2013